The Roman Empire, its money and 'giving to Caesar'

Cross-curricular links
The Christian Bible's New Testament provides original source material describing life at the edge of the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Much of what happened in Roman Britain would have followed the same pattern as that in Roman Judea.

Aims and objectives

  • To explore original source material about the Roman Empire and its use of money.
  • By the end of the lesson, each child will have been introduced to the main coins used across the Roman Empire, and been given the opportunity to analyse and draw conclusions about how the coins were valued and used, as well as to think about the impact imperial Rome may have had on its subjects.

Background

The Christian Bible's New Testament provides original source material describing life at the edge of the Roman Empire in the first century ad. Much of what happened in Roman Britain would have followed the same pattern as that in Roman Judea. Although the Roman Empire allowed several concessions to the monotheistic Jewish religion, taxes were raised to pay the wages of Roman legionaries; food speculators were growing rich by hoarding scarce grain; rich Roman nobles were amassing personal fortunes; and the Empire was lurching through a series of crises caused by unstable governments and civil war. The ordinary people of conquered provinces such as Judea were heavily taxed, breeding resentment among them, which would eventually lead to violent rebellion in ad70. (Interestingly, however, this did not include the Galilee region, where Jesus had travelled and preached.)

Preparation

Using the Bible, children can explore aspects of this Roman world for themselves, perhaps working in pairs to investigate different passages, and then pooling their observations and deductions. You should ideally use a child - friendly Bible translation, or retelling that is appropriate for the age and ability of your pupils. (www.biblegateway.com offers a downloadable variety, including the Easy-to-Read Version (ERV), the International Children's Bible (ICB) and the Good News Translation (GNT) - but beware American spellings.) Some Bibles replace the Roman names of coins with modern equivalents.

Lesson introduction

Ask pupils to quickly discuss and share what they already know about life in ancient Rome and Roman Britain. Explain that everything we know comes from looking at artefacts and documents from Roman times, and then asking hard questions about them. Historians have to be detectives, studying clues then using the evidence to build up a complete picture. It's a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the box lid for help - and with lots of pieces missing! But it's worth it, because history can reveal a lot about who we are and the place where we live, and it can also help us work out what we think about the world now.

For the Romans, one thing was very important - money! (Quick discussion: what do we need money to do?) Money was invented about 2500 years ago to make it simpler to 'exchange value', meaning people could buy and sell more easily. By Roman times, coins and precious metals were becoming essential. Soldiers needed to be paid, food had to be bought, and roads and buildings had to be built - and the money had to come from somewhere!

The Roman Empire ran on taxes. After Roman armies had captured a country, the Emperor would tax its conquered people every year - and the money went to pay for everything the Romans thought important, including the Emperor himself. This meant a lot of money flowing from the edges of the Roman Empire into the middle. But while the Romans were getting richer, the people on the edges weren't. Roman citizens didn't have to pay any tax, so it was really worthwhile becoming one, although it could cost a lot of money! Many Bible stories come from this time - so what can we discover from them about the Roman Empire and its money?

Development

Explain and display the different coins in use during Roman times. (Wikipedia has a helpful diagram under the heading 'Imperial iconography'.)

Note: Prices and wages in Rome itself were a great deal higher than in Roman provinces such as Judea, and inflation led to both rising frequently. For our purposes, the main coins in circulation were the silver denarius, the quinarius, the sestertius, the dupondius, the as, the semis and the quadrans. Doubling was used to work out the denominations:

1 denarius = 2 quinarii = 4 sestertii = 8 dupondii = 16 assis (plural of as) = 32 semissis = 64 quadrantis

(When pluralised, the ' - ius' ending becomes ' - ii'.)

In Roman Judea, other coins were also used. The local lepta was worth two quadrantis, and the shekel (for making offerings in the temple) was worth four denarii. The gold aureus was worth about 25 denarii - and wasn't in common circulation.

Pupil tasks

Set the children to working in pairs or small groups, and ask them to read and annotate a few of the selected passages from 'New Testament extracts about money in Roman times'. Encourage pupils to discuss and note down any observations or questions concerning what each passage reveals about:

  • what the different Roman coins could buy.
  • how the Romans treated the people they ruled.

Afterwards, share and compare any observations or interesting questions. What would be the wage for a day's work in the fields? (One denarius.) Point out that life could be tough for the ordinary people of Roman - occupied Judea, because although taxes kept wages and consequently prices low, if food suddenly became expensive because of drought, famine or war, many would starve.

Differentiation

Less Able pupils should be paired with More Able pupils to share insights and observations.

All translations are taken from the ERV, and have been adjusted where necessary to show original coinage.

New Testament extracts about money in Roman times

Soldiers and money: Luke 3:12-14

John the Baptist is telling people how to please God. Roman soldiers were paid 225 denarii a year. So what's going on?

Even the tax collectors came to John. They wanted to be baptised. They said to him, 'Teacher, what should we do?'

He told them, 'Don't take more taxes from people than you have been ordered to collect.'

The soldiers asked him, 'What about us? What should we do?'
He said to them, 'Don't use force or lies to make people give you money. Be happy with the pay you get.'

Roman taxes: Matthew 22:15-22 (adjusted)

Why are the Pharisees asking Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus answers by showing them a silver denarius. What might have happened if Jesus had simply said yes or no?

Then the Pharisees left the place where Jesus was teaching. They made plans to catch him saying something wrong. They sent some men to Jesus. They were some of their own followers and some from the group called Herodians. They said, 'Teacher, we know you are an honest man. We know you teach the truth about God's way. You are not afraid of what others think about you. All people are the same to you. So tell us what you think. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'

But Jesus knew that these men were trying to trick him. So he said, 'You hypocrites! Why are you trying to catch me saying something wrong? Show me a coin used for paying the tax.' They showed Jesus a silver denarius. Then he asked, 'Whose picture is on the coin? And whose name is written on the coin?'

They answered, 'It is Caesar's picture and Caesar's name.'

Then Jesus said to them, 'Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.'

When they heard what Jesus said, they were amazed. They left him and went away.

A tax - collector's change of heart: Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus worked for the Romans and paid himself out of the taxes he collected. What is most striking about his story? What might happen next?

Jesus was going through the city of Jericho. In Jericho there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a wealthy, very important tax collector. He wanted to see who Jesus was. There were many others who wanted to see Jesus too. Zacchaeus was too short to see above the people. So he ran to a place where he knew Jesus would come. Then he climbed a sycamore tree so he could see him.

When Jesus came to where Zacchaeus was, he looked up and saw him in the tree. Jesus said, 'Zacchaeus, hurry! Come down! I must stay at your house today.'

Zacchaeus hurried and came down. He was happy to have Jesus in his house. Everyone saw this. They began to complain, 'Look at the kind of man Jesus is staying with. Zacchaeus is a sinner!'

Zacchaeus said to the Lord, 'I want to do good. I will give half of my money to the poor. If I have cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times more.'

Jesus said, 'Today is the day for this family to be saved from sin. Yes, even this tax collector is one of God's chosen people. The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.'

The rich fool: Luke 12:13-21

How could collecting mountains of food set someone up for life in Roman times? (What might happen during a famine?)

One of the men in the crowd said to Jesus, 'Teacher, our father just died and left some things for us. Tell my brother to share them with me.'

But Jesus said to him, 'Who said I should be your judge or decide how to divide your father's things between you two?' Then Jesus said to them, 'Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. People do not get life from the many things they own.'

Then Jesus used this story: 'There was a rich man who had some land. His land grew a very good crop of food. He thought to himself, "What will I do? I have no place to keep all my crops."

'Then he said, "I know what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns! I will put all my wheat and good things together in my new barns. Then I can say to myself, I have many good things stored. I have saved enough for many years. Rest, eat, drink, and enjoy life!"

'But God said to that man, "Foolish man! Tonight you will die. So what about the things you prepared for yourself? Who will get those things now?"

'This is how it will be for anyone who saves things only for himself. To God that person is not rich.'

A poor woman's offering: Mark 12:41-44 (adjusted)

All Jews had to pay a basic temple tax, but people could give more if they wanted. Why might someone have done this?

Jesus sat near the Temple collection box and watched as people put money into it. Many rich people put in a lot of money. Then a poor widow came and put in two very small copper lepta, worth less than a penny.

Jesus called his followers to him and said, 'This poor widow put in only two small coins. But the truth is, she gave more than all those rich people. They have plenty, and they gave only what they did not need. This woman is very poor, but she gave all she had. It was money she needed to live on.'

The Roman officer's servant: Luke 7:2-10

Are there any surprises in this story about a Roman officer who has bought a house in the land his army conquered?

In Capernaum there was an army officer. He had a servant who was very sick; he was near death. The officer loved the servant very much. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some older Jewish leaders to him. He wanted the men to ask Jesus to come and save the life of his servant. The men went to Jesus. They begged Jesus to help the officer. They said, 'This officer is worthy to have your help. He loves our people and he built the synagogue for us.'

So Jesus went with them. He was coming near the officer's house when the officer sent friends to say, 'Lord, you don't need to do anything special for me. I am not good enough for you to come into my house. That is why I did not come to you myself. You need only to give the order, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am a man under the authority of other men. And I have soldiers under my authority. I tell one soldier, "Go," and he goes. And I tell another soldier, "Come," and he comes. And I say to my servant, "Do this," and my servant obeys me.'

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. He turned to the people following him and said, 'I tell you, this is the most faith I have seen anywhere, even in Israel.'

The group that was sent to Jesus went back to the house. There they found that the servant was healed.

Three servants: Matthew 25:14-29 (adjusted)

What does this say about making money in Roman times? A Roman talent was 32 kg of aurei (gold coins) and worth thousands of denarii.

'God's kingdom will also be like a man leaving home to travel to another place for a visit. Before he left, he talked with his servants. He told his servants to take care of his things while he was gone. He decided how much each servant would be able to care for. The man gave one servant five bags of money (five talents). He gave another servant two bags (two talents). And he gave a third servant one bag (one talent). Then he left. The servant who got five talents went quickly to invest the money. Those five talents earned five more. It was the same with the servant who had two talents. That servant invested the money and earned two more. But the servant who got one talent went away and dug a hole in the ground. Then he hid his master's money in the hole.

'After a long time the master came home. He asked the servants what they did with his money. The servant who got five talents brought that amount and five more talents to the master. The servant said, "Master, you trusted me to care for five talents. So I used them to earn five more."

'The master answered, "You did right. You are a good servant who can be trusted. You did well with that small amount of money. So I will let you care for much greater things. Come and share my happiness with me."

'Then the servant who got two talents came to the master. The servant said, "Master, you gave me two talents to care for. So I used your two talents to earn two more."

'The master answered, "You did right. You are a good servant who can be trusted. You did well with a small amount of money. So I will let you care for much greater things. Come and share my happiness with me."

'Then the servant who got one talent came to the master. The servant said, "Master, I knew you were a very hard man. You harvest what you did not plant. You gather crops where you did not put any seed. So I was afraid. I went and hid your money in the ground. Here is the one talent you gave me."

'The master answered, "You are a bad and lazy servant! You say you knew that I harvest what I did not plant and that I gather crops where I did not put any seed. So you should have put my money in the bank. Then, when I came home, I would get my money back. And I would also get the interest that my money earned."

'So the master told his other servants, "Take the one talent from that servant and give it to the servant who has ten talents. Everyone who uses what they have will get more. They will have much more than they need. But people who do not use what they have will have everything taken away from them.'

Forgiving debts: Matthew 18:21-35 (adjusted)

A Roman talent was 32 kg of aurei (gold coins) and worth thousands of denarii. What does this say about forgiving debts?

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, when someone won't stop doing wrong to me, how many times must I forgive them? Seven times?'

Jesus answered, 'I tell you, you must forgive them more than seven times. You must continue to forgive them even if they do wrong to you seventy - seven times.

'So God's kingdom is like a king who decided to collect the money his servants owed him. The king began to collect his money. One servant owed him ten thousand talents of silver. He was not able to pay the money to his master, the king. So the master ordered that he and everything he owned be sold, even his wife and children. The money would be used to pay the king what the servant owed.

'But the servant fell on his knees and begged, "Be patient with me. I will pay you everything I owe." The master felt sorry for him. So he told the servant he did not have to pay. He let him go free.

'Later, that same servant found another servant who owed him a hundred silver denarii. He grabbed him around the neck and said, "Pay me the money you owe me!"

'The other servant fell on his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me. I will pay you everything I owe."

'But the first servant refused to be patient. He told the judge that the other servant owed him money, and that servant was put in jail until he could pay everything he owed. All the other servants saw what happened. They felt very sorry for the man. So they went and told their master everything that happened.

'Then the master called his servant in and said, "You evil servant. You begged me to forgive your debt, and I said you did not have to pay anything! So you should have given that other man who serves with you the same mercy I gave you." The master was very angry, so he put the servant in jail to be punished. And he had to stay in jail until he could pay everything he owed.

'This king did the same as my heavenly Father will do to you. You must forgive your brother or sister with all your heart, or my heavenly Father will not forgive you.'

Feeding a crowd: Mark 6:35-37 (adjusted)

 

Buying food for all these people would have cost 200 denarii - about eight months' pay.

It was now very late in the day. Jesus' followers came to him and said, 'No one lives around here, and it is already very late. So send the people away. They need to go to the farms and towns around here to buy some food to eat.'

But Jesus answered, 'You give them some food to eat.'

They said to Jesus, 'We can't buy enough bread to feed all these people. We would all have to work a month to earn 200 denarii to buy that much bread!'

The jar of perfume: Mark 14:3-8 (adjusted)

The perfume was worth 300 denarii - about a year's pay.

Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper. While he was eating there, a woman came to him. She had an alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume made of pure nard. She opened the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus' head.

Some of the followers there saw this. They were upset and complained to each other. They said, 'Why waste that perfume? It was worth 300 denarii, a full year's pay. It could have been sold and the money given to those who are poor.' And they told the woman what a bad thing she had done.

Jesus said, 'Leave her alone. Why are you giving her such trouble? She did a very good thing for me. You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. This woman did the only thing she could do for me. She poured perfume on my body before I die to prepare it for burial.'

The Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version (ERV) is copyright by World Bible Translation Center.

Extension

What effect do you think any of these stories would have had on an audience of slaves, servants and women - none of whom were thought to be important in the Roman Empire? Pick one story ('The rich fool', perhaps) and write about its possible impact.

Plenary: discussion points

  • Read aloud a final passage from the Bible, which records Jesus' most famous teachings about money and possessions, now called the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48 and/or Matthew 6:25-34).
  • Discuss what impact you think this would have had on people who were angry or depressed about being subjects of the powerful Roman Empire.

Valuing Money

Acknowledgements

Photo by Nikita Andreev on Unsplash